Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #38:

Building A Character

by Travis S. Casey
July 19, 2002

Good stories are about characters — the decisions they make, the ways in which they change. Almost everything you'll find about writing agrees on that, and many paper & pencil RPG GMs agree with it as well. Online roleplaying games usually try to turn that on its head — stories center around events rather than characters.

That's partly because of the nature of the medium — centering a story around a particular character means it's not centered around other characters. When you've got dozens to thousands of players, developing a story or plot line just for one just doesn't make a lot of sense. And there's also the players themselves to deal with — if the player of a character who a story is centering around suddenly leaves the game, what happens to that story?

Players don't have to let this limit them, though. The game creators may not be able to focus the game around one character, but as a player, you can (and most likely will) focus all your efforts on a single character in the game, or a small set of characters. You can work to make your character interesting, and even to make him/her change and grow over time.

In games where there's a more distributed power of story creation (such as in many MUSHes), you may have the opportunity to have your character be the center of a story. In such an environment, then, there's a bit of an extra reason to create an interesting character. Last, but not least, some people simply enjoy playing a well-realized character. It can be fun to "step out of yourself" for a while and "be someone else", instead of just using a character as a game piece.

Developing Characters: DaS vs. DiP

There's two basic methods of character development: DaS (develop at start) and DiP (develop in play) — and, of course, mixtures of the two. The extreme of DaS would be to make up everything about a character before ever playing that character; the extreme of DiP would be to start playing without even having a basic idea about the character, and just make it all up as you go along.

In the real world, of course, character creation almost always happens somewhere in between these two extremes. Different people find that different things work for them, and different things can work at different times. There are some people who have a strong preference for one or the other, and, the world (and especially the Internet) being the way it is, you may run across people out there who believe that one of these two ways is the right way to build a character. Don't pay attention to those people. Whichever way, or whichever combination, works best for you at the moment is the "right" way.

Personally, I'm usually more on the DaS side, but there have been times that I've started to play a character and found that the character as I'd thought it up beforehand just wasn't working. In such a case, it may be best just to abandon some of your notions about the character and see what develops in play. And while I usually start with pretty strong ideas about what my character is like, I also usually leave minor details to be filled in later, either during play or after I've played the character a few times.

Character Questions

A lot of people have come up with lists of questions to answer about a character in order to "flesh out" that character. Usually these sorts of lists are presented as a DaS technique (i.e., "come up with answers to these before you start the game"), but they can also be used as a DiP technique, by taking the questions to be something to look over after playing the character for a while. In the DiP mode, if you can't answer all the questions yet, you don't worry about it — just come back to it again later.

Here's some of my favorite things to think about when making a character:

Goals. What does this character want that he/she doesn't already have? To found a guild? Become a famous swordsman? Restore the honor of his/her family? At least some of the character's goals should be difficult to achieve, or open-ended (e.g., "to protect the innocent" is a goal that a character could work on forever) — goals that are too easy to achieve result in a character who quickly has nothing left that he/she wants to do.

It's also good to have a mix of short-term and long-term goals. Having a character want to "become the world's most famous magician" could be a good goal, but it's not really one you can generally start to pursue immediately with a new character. Some short-term goals may be wayposts towards your long-term goals (e.g., "learn magic" for the prior goal), but unless you're trying to design a character who's obsessed with a particular goal, you should also mix in short-term goals that have nothing directly to do with any of the long-term goals (e.g., "find a place to live").

Secrets. Does this character have secrets? What are they? Remember that not all secrets have to be Big Secrets — characters can have little secrets too, and having little secrets makes them feel more human. Think of the kinds of silly things that people keep secret about themselves — does the mighty warrior have a soft spot for romantic ballads? Does the magician dread losing his "lucky" rabbit's foot, even though he knows it's not really magic?

A related note to secrets is habits — bad ones can be secrets, but non-secret habits can also help make a character. Does your character belch? Use his/her knife as a toothpick? Giggle instead of laughing? Flirt?

It should be noted that it's easy to overdo both secrets and habits. There are some players who seem to always make characters who have deep, dark secrets... and who are usually anguished about them. And they make sure that everyone knows they Have A Secret. Don't be one of those people. With habits, a mention now and then is enough — a character who's constantly picking his/her teeth, or biting his/her nails, or whatever, is a caricature, not a real character. (Of course, if a caricature is what you want, that's fine... such things can be good for "comic relief" characters or characters in a comedy game.)

Likes & dislikes. What does the character like? Does he/she have a favorite food? Color? Music? Again, as with habits, it's easy to overdo these things — a character doesn't have to always dress in his/her favorite color, or always eat the same thing. But most people do have some things they like, and some they dislike.

Appearance. What does this character look like? Be descriptive — it's easy to fall into describing appearance as just race, sex, hair color, and eye color. Think beyond that. What's their hair like — greasy? Shiny? Curly? Rough? How long is it? How do they wear it — back, up, braided, in a ponytail? What color is their skin — not just a general type, but do they have a tan? Freckles? Things like how someone walks, what kind of clothes they wear, any scars they have, jewelry they wear, and many other things can all enter into a description.

Since a description can get so detailed, you might want to come up with a couple of descriptions for your character — an "at-a-glance" one, and a more full one. Quite a few games support just that.

But Wait, There's More!

Well, I'm about out of time for this column... but there's more left to say. Join me in two weeks for the rest of story on characters, including thoughts about avoiding cliches, my own trick for coming up with engaging characters, giving your character something to do, and what I think is the most important question for defining a character!

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